Mob Invades U.S. Capitol as World Looks On

The attack on Congress sets a new low for the United States as it begins 2021.

Congressional staffers hold up their hands while Capitol Police SWAT teams secure the floor in Washington, DC on January 6, 2021.
Congressional staffers hold up their hands while Capitol Police SWAT teams secure the floor in Washington, DC on January 6, 2021. OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP

A violent mob of protesters loyal to and egged on by U.S. President Donald Trump stormed the U.S. Capitol building on Wednesday as lawmakers were attempting to officially certify the victory of President-elect Joe Biden in November’s election.

Rioters overwhelmed local police, invaded House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office, looted furniture and mementos, and ran freely through the hallways of the Capitol as hundreds of lawmakers went into hiding.

Washington, D.C. authorities say four people died during the violence, one of whom was shot by police. The joint session of Congress reconvened late on Wednesday evening and, after debating through the night, officially certified Biden’s victory early on Thursday morning.

The events seem to have taken local authorities by surprise: Police could be seen jostling with protesters while clad in bike helmets and light protective gear—a far cry from the mass militarization the city saw in the wake of protests over the death of George Floyd during the summer.

The world reacts. International reaction came swiftly. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson condemned the scenes as “disgraceful” and called for a peaceful transfer of power. “American democracy tonight appears under siege,” said Josep Borrell, the European Union’s foreign-policy chief. Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, meanwhile, retweeted posts comparing the protesters to those that stormed the Venezuelan National Assembly with Juan Guaidó last year.

It can happen here. If the limp U.S. response in 2020 to the coronavirus pandemic shattered the long-held belief (in official Washington at least) of an exceptional America, unique among nations, Wednesday’s scenes of a people’s legislature under armed assault dusted away any remaining shards.

President-elect Joe Biden, in urging Trump to tell the mob to stand down, employed rhetoric that sometimes seemed from a bygone era. Congress, a den of gridlock for the past decade, was a “citadel of liberty” under attack. The Capitol scenes “do not reflect the true America,” Biden said.

Other politicians had more practical concerns. Rep. Ilhan Omar has begun drafting articles of impeachment against the president. Her Democratic colleague Sen. Tom Carper was more circumspect, cautioning against retribution and urging lawmakers to “turn the page.” Even so, Carper was calling for Trump’s resignation soon after making those comments.

The insurrection lives on. As Wednesday’s attack makes clear, there is a vocal minority with no interest in reconciliation. Brendan O’Connor, the author of a forthcoming book on the extremist groups given new life by President Trump, told Foreign Policy that these organizations are in for the long haul.

“We need to prepare ourselves for this kind of thing in the years to come,” O’Connor said. “I don’t think that political violence and political street violence is going away: This is part of politics in the U.S. now. “

It’s also part of U.S. national security concerns. A report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies found that of 893 terrorist attacks and plots in the United States since 1994, 57 percent of those were planned or carried out by right-wing extremist groups, (and that share is even higher if only recent years are taken into account).

QAnon and on and on. Among the protesters were tell-tale signs of QAnon support, which Justin Ling describes as a “conspiracy movement-cum-mass delusion.” It’s beliefs have now become so mainstream in Republican circles, Ling writes, that “Trump is, for all intents and purposes, the new Q.”

A coup? Not quite, says Naunihal Singh, a professor at the Naval War College and the author of Seizing Power: The Strategic Logic of Military Coups in an interview with FP Editor-at-Large Jonathan Tepperman. Paul Musgrave, argues that it was undeniably a coup attempt.

America the exceptional? It’s not easy to say how much the storming of the Capitol will contribute to the decline in the reputation of the United States abroad. That’s because that decline has already been so steep: A Gallup poll of 29 countries in 2020 found that 20 already had approval ratings of U.S. leadership that are at new lows or that tie the previous record lows.

Colm Quinn is the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @colmfquinn


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